Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A letter to the editor

Before I was laid off, I used to fill in on occasion for the person who edited the letters to the editor. In all my years as a copy editor, I had little contact with the readers, and I was amazed at how passionate people could be over seemingly little issues. The hot button issues like the Middle East or health care reform, forget about it.

As for myself, I'd never written a letter to the editor. Until last week. A column appeared in the paper that got under my skin, so I sent the columnist an e-mail about my objections, and he didn't respond.

I thought if I had been the copy editor handling that column, I would have called the columnist and suggested he double check the facts. And the headline, although it accurately reflected the lead of the column, really bothered me. So here's the poop:

The nickname of the columnist is the "road warrior," and he's supposed to write about commuting issues in New Jersey. The headline on this particular column was "A chance to improve N.J.'s Third World rest stops."

That already bothered me, because there is nothing "Third World" about the rest stops along New Jersey's "non-toll" roads, which is what the column was about. I'll chalk the headline up to the copy editor's attempt at hyperbole which in my opinion fell short, but there's nothing wrong with trying.

The headline and the lead were plural, however, and only one rest stop was referenced. And the columnist didn't bother to go and see the rest stop for himself, but rather wrote his column from his desk in the form of an answer to an e-mail, although he may have called and had a conversation with the person who sent the e-mail to verify that she existed and get a little more description.

The rest stop about which she complained is one that is dear to my heart. It's not a service plaza -- far from it. It has no facilities. And most of the time it's entrance to exit big rigs, and a regular little old car is lucky to find a nook between the 18-wheelers in which to squeeze for an hour or so. But many years ago when I was returning from an oral history interviewing trip I got caught in a terrible snowstorm, and I was able to ride it out in that very "Third World" rest stop.

So I dug a little deeper into the column. The original e-mailer noted that she was returning from her daughter's wedding in the Outer Banks of North Carolina to her home in Ringwood. The rest stop in question is on Route 78. Wait a second, thought I, if she's coming from the Outer Banks to Ringwood, N.J., she would come right up the Route 95 corridor through Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and onto the New Jersey Turnpike. I'm not hurling accusations or anything, but this raised the possibility that she detoured over to Pennsylvania -- the "scenic route," so to speak -- to avoid paying the tolls.

I would at the very least have asked the columnist to check out this possibility. Nevertheless, I Mapquested the route from the Outer Banks to Ringwood and, lo and behold, there actually was a 4.3 mile stretch she would have driven on Route 78. This of course would have involved passing several excellent service plazas on the turnpike if she did indeed take that road more than halfway through New Jersey. But maybe it was a Sunday and she wanted to avoid the long gas lines and the long Starbucks line in the service plazas, or maybe she didn't feel the urge to pull into a rest stop until she was on Route 78.

I'm not even sure there is a rest stop along that stretch. Also, and I discovered this while researching the situation, while the sign indeed says "rest area," the rest stops on Route 78 -- and there are only three in New Jersey, two going west and one going east -- are not real rest stops but are "turnouts," or simply a place to park. If the truckers didn't have this option they would clog the exit ramps to get their mandated rest time. And if the turnout had restrooms, it would encourage use by more cars, which due to the small area would have to mingle with the trucks, creating a dangerous situation.

The reason the lack of facilities was mentioned in the email was because the writer witnessed a man urinating in the woods, and saw "evidence" that others had done the same on the pavement. I can't imagine what this "evidence" was, but that's neither here nor there. At least the fellow was pissing in the woods. This hardly, in my opinion, rates a "Third World" comparison. It isn't like he pissed on one of her tires. But I digress.

I was surprised at my passionate reaction to the misinformation in this column, but I attribute it to my fondness for that particular rest area, the failure of the columnist to know what the f*** he was writing about, and the failure of the copy desk to query him on what seemed to me some obvious difficulties with the column.

So I wrote a letter to the editor, and pointed out that if indeed this woman were avoiding paying tolls on the New Jersey Turnpike by detouring through Pennsylvania, she was cheating the state out of needed road funds and thus had no right to criticize the rest stops on its non-toll roads.

I pointed out to the editor of the letters page, who I used to fill in for, that if he printed my letter he might be fired, since I've been considered persona non grata by the management of this particular newspaper ever since I testified on behalf of a former colleague who was suing them for age discrimination. He still might print the letter which, if I know the paper's loyal letter to the editor writers, should stir up a wasp's nest of responses.

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